The marketing was wrong. While the buzz has been on Gary Ross’s cinematic adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular book series, The Hunger Games, since the first film was announced, all of the stills, trailers, and posters that have trickled out over the months have not captured the stunning final product. Ross’s film is an engaging, energetic, and emotional journey that should please the series’ dedicated fans while also luring in new ones. Cinephiles who are drawn to science fiction and dystopian stories will likely find a new favorite franchise, a YA adaptation elevated by a talented cast, skilled direction, and a tone and story that feel vibrant and applicable beyond just this single film.
The film is set in a future version of the United States in which the country has been fractured and then tenuously reunited after an uprising nearly seventy-five years prior. The rebels were eventually quelled, and the resulting country consists of a rich and powerful central Capitol and twelve individual “Districts.” Each District is responsible for one type of provision or industry and, as the Capitol restricts communication and interaction between the Districts, they are at the mercy of their government to get supplies that are necessary for even basic survival. And though that should be enough to keep the Capitol satisfied in their power, it’s not, and they use the annual “Hunger Games” to remind their citizens just how in control they are. The Games are a televised fight to the death, with its twenty-four players comprised of one boy and one girl each from every District, picked at random in a lottery that is both flawed and unfair.
After her little sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is picked for the Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Older, stronger, and a skilled archer, Katniss stands a far better chance in the arena than young Prim, but she will still have to go up against highly trained competitors, a rigged system, the whims of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Head Gamesmaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and a pair of unexpected alliances. Her team includes drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), gentle stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), weirdly hilarious escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and her fellow Tribute – the dedicated Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). While the film’s cast is rounded out by some unexpected choices (Kravitz for one), the acting is consistently solid and rarely hammy. Those familiar with Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone won’t be surprised by her strength as Katniss, but Hutcherson, Bentley, Harrelson, and Banks all turn in stand-out work.
The film is a big step forward for director Gary Ross, who has proven more than capable in other genres before The Hunger Games, but had yet to exhibit any sort of action mettle. Combined with the energetic camerawork by his director of photography Tom Stern, Ross has shown that he understands the look and feel of the action of the Games, while also placing paramount importance on infusing his frames with beauty and emotion. The Games are a violent, dangerous, and often clever affair, and Ross has successfully captured the exhilaration and fear of that event. While the film is nearly two-and-a-half-hours long and over half of it takes place in the arena, it never drags and remains exciting and engaging throughout.
The film’s screenplay (with a first pass from Billy Ray and additional work from Ross and Collins) makes some interesting and compelling choices that might see some pushback from overzealous fans. Katniss’ famed Mockingjay pin now comes to her from a different source, for instance, and some of the book’s supporting characters are whittled down into smaller (or even nonexistent roles). Yet, most of those decisions are spot-on, particularly smaller moments, like how we first meet Peeta, how we come to understand his and Katniss’ history, and brief moments when we journey back to District 12 to see the reactions of her hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth, humanizing a difficult character).
Yet, the film does quite effectively bring to life many of the meticulously detailed elements of the books, often making them feel more accessible and understandable in the process. The look of the various Districts is true to its source, and the film’s costume and make-up departments have managed to translate specific looks (from Katniss and Peeta in particular, to the colorful Capitol citizens at large) straight from the page to the screen. Moreover, while there has never been any doubt as to the depth and breadth of the Capitol’s control over the proceedings, seeing the Games play out through Seneca Crane’s central command center adds a new dimension to the tone of the game and the perception the Capitol. That control, combined with the overt division between what the other Districts have versus what the Capitol has (in terms of goods, services, technology, and quality of life) give us a striking villain to root against (made even better when the first seeds of a new revolution begin to sprout).
An exciting and compelling piece of work, The Hunger Games is a worthy watch for fans old and new, a standalone film that elevates its source material to new heights. Despite some missteps – most supporting characters are absent in the final third, the end is wide open, the score is often overbearing in the film’s first moments – Gary Ross and his cast and crew have crafted a rousing experience that introduces a brave and bold new world that, though terrifying, is worth its own tribute.
The Upside: Solid acting; a stunning look and feel; an infectious energy and sense of engagement; stays true to the source material except in rare (and necessary instances); the introduction of a bold new world; tonally moving and emotional.
The Downside: A somewhat overwrought score in the film’s first act; disappearing supporting characters in final act; the end begs a sequel, a fact which will likely bug newcomers, though it’s true to the source material.
On the Side: Jennifer Lawrence dropped out of the Oliver Stone movie Savages in order to take this role.